NEW YORK — Winnie-the-Pooh came to life in the Hundred Acre Wood, thanks to the imagination of the real-life Christopher Robin Milne and to the author A.A. Milne.
Milne’s stories were set in a fictional version of Ashdown Forest in England, where his son enjoyed hours of vivid playtime with Pooh and other stuffed animals.
But since 1987, Winnie-the-Pooh has resided with his friends in a much different place: the New York Public Library.
Visitors to the New York Public Library’s flagship building in mid-town Manhattan can usually be found posing for photos in front of Patience and Fortitude, the sculpted lions who stand guard at the front steps.
Pooh doesn’t draw as much of a crowd, being a rather small and quiet bear who keeps out of the way, rather than a regal lion. But you will happen upon him if you browse through the Children’s Center, located on the ground floor of the main library at Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets, officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
Winnie-the-Pooh and the other real stuffed animals who inspired Milne’s storybooks were donated to the New York Public Library by the publishing company E.P. Dutton & Co., whose former president, Elliott Macrae, somehow got the books from the author in 1947.
Hullabaloo followed in 1998, when a British Member of Parliament demanded the toys be returned to England. But authorities in the United States and England decided to let Pooh and pals remain in New York.
The film Goodbye Christopher Robin, currently in limited release (see video above), features many scenes of Christopher Robin hard at play with his favorite stuffed animals. But it’s only when you see the real Pooh, face to face, that you can appreciate how much the little boy cherished this bear.
The real Winnie-the-Pooh does not look like the rotund, golden bear in the Disney adaptations of Milne’s stories. Nor does he look like the fuzzy, mild bear in E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for the books.
The real Pooh bear is lanky, heavy of head and trim in the belly. His ears are prominent, almost canine in shape, and his face is longer and less babyish than in the books and movies. His eyes are those of an old-fashioned toy: attentive, with large pupils encircled by even larger irises, colored in an orange-hazel hue.
Most importantly, he looks shopworn. Even after the good vacuuming he received in 1988, and the more substantial conservation he underwent in 2015 and ’16 (see video below), Winnie-the-Pooh looks as if he’s been dragged across a bedroom floor, spent a number of hours in the great outdoors, and been kissed, hugged, tackled and slept upon by a devoted child.
Most of Pooh’s friends are in similar shape: Eeyore, the slumping donkey; Tigger, who is only slightly bent from all that bouncing; Piglet, teensy at 4.5 inches and barely recognizable from being played with so much; and sweet Kanga, sans Roo, who went missing in an apple orchard in the 1930s.
When you inspect these famous plush toys in the display case at the New York Public Library, you might think of your own well loved stuffies, and wonder where they are now and how you ever could have lost track of them.
Or you might think of a stuffed animal currently being loved to pieces in your house.
A.A. Milne is frequently misquoted, and lots of sappy sayings have been wrongly attributed to Pooh. So we won’t venture into the realm of engraved keychains and coffee mugs.
Instead, let’s take the words of Margery Williams, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, who gets to the heart of why shabby truly is chic. In this passage, the Skin Horse is explaining to the Velveteen Rabbit what it means to be loved:
“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
And so Winnie-the-Pooh, like the Velveteen Rabbit, and like many stuffed animals in your house and in mine, became irrevocably Real.
Visit him, why don’t you, surrounded by the hush of library books and the murmuring presence of children, bursting with imagination, curiosity and potential.
Admission to the library is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Check nypl.org for updates, or call the library at 917-275-6975.